Empty Pockets and Desperation – an original short story

This is a short story submitted to the 2015 One Throne Magazine contest. The first and last sentence (italicized) were provided by the magazine. You were given 24 hours to write a story of up to 1000 words.


Empty Pockets and Desperation

by T. K. Jones

They laid the train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d think you were on the train to New York and arrived in Kinshasa, or to Shanghai and found yourself lost in Istanbul. You couldn’t even tell your family or friends you’d be back in a few days. Would you? How could you know? Or that’s what I heard anyway. But I thought it was some new and ridiculous urban legend. The news wasn’t talking about people that hopped on the train and went missing. If this was the case, why weren’t people avoiding the trains? Many still rode them and didn’t appear the least bit apprehensive. I soon forgot the stories. Lost in my own work of fiction.

A year later, after I heard the rumors about space bending trains and oddly placed tracks, I hopped on a train in Boston to get to New York for an important meeting with Tom, my new literary agent. All those people are in fancy pants New York City with their angular haircuts and shiny skyscrapers. I had a manuscript to sell and a desperate need for money. Meaning I couldn’t afford a plane ticket plus cab fare, let alone round trip, in case the deal fell through. And I couldn’t drive there because my car was in such bad shape that it wouldn’t last the five hour drive to New York.

This was my first time on the trains heading out-of-state. I had a whole seating area to myself. There were only three others in my train car. As the train sped forward on the tracks, I saw the cityscape of Boston turn into a glittering rainbow blur. I couldn’t make a thing out. We must have been travelling very fast. And in just a short time, the train slowed down in a snowy landscape. It wasn’t New York.

The dreary train station had signs in Cyrillic. It might as well have been Chinese. I couldn’t read any of it. I ended up in Vladivostok according to the Russian-accented voice over the intercom. Impossible! But apparently true. I saw the weary, snow-slapped Eurasian faces all around me. Staring at me in my insufficient suit. I ran for a phone and managed after many failed attempts to call Tom in Manhattan.

“Tom, I’m in Siberia! I don’t know how I got here,” I practically whimpered into the phone. I really didn’t have a way to get back home. I had no significant amount of money on me. Not even a credit card. I left home with it but it must have been stolen by a pickpocket, somewhere en route.

“How could you not know?” Tom was upset. I could hear the editor curtly excuse herself from his office. She had other engagements and didn’t appreciate having her time wasted.

“Please, explain this to her!” I begged him.

“Explain what? Were you gonna fly here or drive or what?” Tom asked.

“No,” I closed my eyes to picture what happened. “I went on the train to New York. But somehow I ended up in Siberia!”

“Did you get off the train and end up on an airplane?” Tom sounded skeptical.

“No! I’m on the platform. The train’s still sitting right here.”

Tom sighed and shook his head. “Okay, well that deal fell through but there are other publishers out there. So tell me again what your stories about.” Tom represented many clients and hadn’t the vaguest memory of my story.

On the phone I described to him the premise of the story. It was about a man who hopped a train to get to another city, only he ended up in a completely different country!

Just then, I wondered why I couldn’t simply call Tom the way I was doing right now, only from home. He said the publishers and editors wanted to see and interact with the writer to see if they could sell them to the public. I told him I didn’t think that was a very fair way to do business, prejudicial in fact. He told me to save it. He wasn’t in the mood. And that’s just the way publishing is.

After a brief pause, Tom let out a strange sound that jarred me. I nearly dropped the receiver. “Do you realize what powers you have?”

“Powers? No, I’m feeling pretty powerless actually.” A crushing wave of fatigue momentarily drowned out the fear and anxiety I was suffering.

“Your story came true. Do you know what that means?”

I’d never heard Tom sound so excited. It perked me up right away. “Tell me!”

“You can write yourself back here!” Tom laughed hysterically. He was laughing at the absurdity of it all. His cackling made it sound as if he’d lost his mind. After catching his breath he added, “Write another story where you get your crazy butt over here.” Tom burst out into an uncontrollable laughter again.

I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not but it seemed to make sense. Why not? I had nothing else I could do. On the back of my manuscript pages I wrote a new story in pencil. Scribbling frantically. Only I didn’t write the character into New York. I wrote him back to Boston. Back where he began. There was no way I could sit still in Tom’s office and sell my story after a day like this.

I marked the last sentence with a bold period. And with that I found myself stepping off the train, not remembering that I had stepped back onto it in the first place. The sky was a charcoal gray and the air sagged with rain. A loud clap of thunder made me jump. I turned to face the train. The strange, impossible train. Or maybe it was the tracks that were strange. I looked down. Rain dripping from the rusty gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks.

Copyright © 2015 T. K. Jones. All Rights Reserved.

Becoming Nick Drake

Here’s a piece I wrote that I actually really like. It was rejected by Indiana Review, though. I will share it here:

Becoming Nick Drake
by T. K. Jones

She played Nick Drake’s “Day is Done” on her outdated laptop. On loop. Mouthing the parts she knew. Even after all this time, she didn’t know all the lyrics. Her fingers jumped on the fast guitar licks which were sparsely sprinkled throughout the song.

As she mouthed the words that came through her clunky Sony headphones, single syllables occasionally escaped from her throat, sounding like a deaf person speaking. Half muted. A moan. It embarrassed her. She was alone in her room but always looked over her shoulders. She would shake her head. Chuckle at herself. No one there.

Sometimes she got so caught up in the song, she became Nick Drake. In a music video or performing on stage. This was even more dangerous, as she would make faces so full of emotion. Going for long stretches of time losing touch with reality. She didn’t want people to see her lip-synching and making melodramatic  faces as she sat at an intersection so she switched to talk radio for drives. Angry, shouting conservatives. Rude lawyers hanging up on nervous callers. Financial analysts quoting Bible verses.

How could she drive safely if she had to make such fast transitions from air-guitar to air-cello and back to air-guitar? How could she listen to her mother in the passenger seat? Her mother had a habit of starting her nostalgic storytelling at the most inopportune times. While someone else was in the middle of a sentence. As an interesting bit of news came on TV.

She needed only to look in the mirror to remind herself that she wasn’t a long-deceased, broody Englishman with a soulful voice. Such a shame.

Driving alone one day, she purposefully crashed her car. A suicide labeled an accident. Leaving her mother one more story to interrupt people with.

(300 words)

Copyright © 2015 T. K. Jones

Disappearing Act – original 100 word flash fiction

Here’s yet another story that was just rejected by 100WordStories. Enjoy. (The rule is it has to be exactly 100 words.)

Disappearing Act
by T. K. Jones

I was back visiting the city where he lives. I don’t know why he stopped contacting me. A year and two months ago. So imagine my surprise when I was in Trader Joe’s and see him. He’s not alone.

He’s with his two kids and a woman. It’s not his ex-wife. I’ve seen photos of her. This woman’s slim. She’s smiling. They’re all smiling. He refused to tell his kids I even existed. I didn’t realize how long I was staring at them.

He looks up. Spots me. His face falls. He slightly nods a greeting. Eyes pleading: Don’t approach!

Copyright © 2015 T. K. Jones. All Rights Reserved.

Cher’s Lunchbox

(Note: This was my entry for Writer’s Digest’s Your Story Contest #66. The prompt was: “Mommy, I don’t like this.” —750 words max. It was not chosen as a finalist, so here it is.)

Cher’s Lunchbox

by T. K. Jones

After a long day of cleaning disgusting motel rooms, all Lisa Greene could do was heat the tuna casserole she made the night before for her and her six-year-old daughter, Cher. Two cans of tuna. A can of peas. A can of carrots. A can of some kind of cream, maybe mushroom, so thick that it had to be scooped out of the can with a spoon. And probably something else, but she didn’t care to remember. Covered with instant mashed potatoes and voila! Dinner.

Cher shuffled into the kitchen just as her mother was pulling the casserole out of the oven. A long afternoon of staring into the mind-frying television made her groggy. The babysitter had gone home an hour or so before she should have. Lisa decided that it was kind of her own fault. She stupidly left her the $15 to take at her own leisure instead of doing it the normal way. But she wasn’t too mad. She felt like such a cheapskate for only being able to offer the girl $15 for three hours of babysitting.

And this was a new babysitter. Their usual babysitter, Samantha, died in a horrific car accident the week before just two blocks away. Mr. Henderson, an elderly man who lives only four houses down, had a stroke while driving home from a doctor’s appointment, and crashed head-on into her car. She was driving home from a long afternoon of babysitting Cher for chump change. Mr. Henderson made it out with barely a scratch. Lisa didn’t tell her daughter. She lied and told her that Samantha moved to Canada for college.

Cher sniffed the air and wrinkled her nose. “What’s that smell?” She dragged each syllable longer than was necessary.

Lisa felt her muscles tense up and sighed deeply. From Cher’s tone she could already tell that dinner would be a battle. “It’s dinner, Cher. Aren’t you hungry?”

“I am but this smells FISHY!” Cher climbed up onto a chair and stared down into the casserole dish, her face hovering two inches away from the steamy surface. “Mommy, I don’t like this.”

Of course she didn’t. She didn’t like her doctor because he was too nice. She didn’t like that her mother was a maid at a cheap motel. She didn’t like that her father left her and her mother for the school principal, Mr. Kincaid, and never came to see her. She didn’t like Mr. Kincaid’s strange habit of winking at her every time he saw her walking down the hallway, as if they were buddies. She didn’t like her blue lunchbox because it didn’t have any cartoon characters on it. She didn’t like her classmate, Donny, because he made it a daily ritual to kick her shins under the desk. And she didn’t like her teacher, Mrs. Crawford, because she didn’t do anything about it. Cher didn’t like a lot of things.

“What do you mean you don’t like it? You haven’t even tasted it yet!” Lisa threw the oven mitts down onto the counter. She was constantly amazed that no matter how frazzled Cher made her, she never hit her. She never throttled her. She never even screamed at her.

“I can taste it through my nose. It’s stinky and nasty. I’m not eating that!” Cher slammed her little fists on the table top. The glass casserole dish shook.

Lisa felt the sides of her cheek burning. She was confronted with images from earlier that day. Of how she scrubbed vomit off the carpet in room 14. Of how she had to fish a used tampon out of the toilet in room 9. Of how her sleazy manager trapped her in the break room and refused to let her go until she gave him a hug. She thought of her ex-husband, Bill, and Alex Kincaid having a nice quiet evening together. “Then go to your room,” she spoke in a low tone through her clenched teeth.

Cher saw the look on her mother’s face. A look she had never seen before. It scared her. She obeyed.

Without thinking, Lisa found herself sitting at the dining room table shoveling the tuna casserole into a plastic Tupperware container. She placed the container of tuna casserole in Cher’s plain, blue lunchbox. At least she didn’t have to worry about packing her daughter’s lunch the next morning.

© April 2015 T. K. Jones

Fancy Horse Girl, Zombified Classmates and an Insolent Instructor

(Note: This short essay was rejected by Writer’s Digest for their 5-Minute memoir section. Enjoy.)

Fancy Horse Girl, Zombified Classmates and an Insolent Instructor

by T. K. Jones

Years ago when I was in college, I signed up for a creative writing workshop. I dreamed of honing my craft and meeting other enthusiastic writers. What ensued can only be described as a disastrous nightmare.

On the very first day of class, instead of doing anything related to writing, we were each forced to draw a horse on the chalkboard. Our teacher, a grad student, thought it would show our personality. For most of us, it didn’t.

But there was one girl in class who took her sweet time, spending five long minutes drawing what she thought was an amazing horse. It took up the whole center of the chalkboard. OK, so she wants to be the center of attention and believes she’s more talented than everyone else. Funny though, since of the twelve or so of us, she turned out to be the most lacking in that department. It seems the people with the least amount of talent are always the ones that are absolutely convinced that they’re overflowing with it.

So we spent the entirety of the first class drawing horses. It was a complete waste of time. As one person after another was made to draw their horse, my heart sank deeper and deeper. What did I get myself into? I wondered, as I scanned the faces of my aloof, already-zombified classmates. It was starting to resemble a morgue.

I made friends with the girl sitting next to me and we both agreed that we didn’t have a good first impression of the workshop. But because we were so starved for advanced creative writing knowledge, we decided to stick with it. To the very end. No matter what.

That couldn’t be said for everyone. A few dropped out right away. The horses did them in. Halfway through the semester, a male classmate, who my new friend and I found to be quite talented, gave up. Not just on the class but on writing altogether! Apparently, the last straw was a catty comment the fancy horse girl made about his story. That it sounded an awful lot like a movie she’d seen before. Of course she couldn’t produce the title of said movie but she just had to say so. He could’ve easily gotten back at her by staying but he never came back to class after that incident.

Most of the participants could barely be called participants at all, as their participation ended with writing their stories. As time went by, it became obvious that no one was really reading anyone else’s work! I felt cheated. Angry. Week after week I took the time to read each and every story, no matter how poorly written, and add useful comments. I even proofread and copyedited for my lazy peers! I got nothing in return except the occasional one-word comment. “Good.”

The rotten cherry to top off the stale, tasteless cake that was my creative writing workshop was the instructor. When he made a comment, which was strangely infrequent for the person running the workshop, it wouldn’t be constructive, rather what could be labeled as degrading. Always blurted out with a slimy look of glee and satisfaction on his perpetually greasy face. “Awful, awful, AWWWWFUL! Ugh!” He enjoyed the embarrassed and hurt expressions and slumped shoulders he caused.

The last day couldn’t end soon enough. It was a last-day-of-class “party.” As we awkwardly sat around in our usual circle, munching on stale tortilla chips and sipping lukewarm soda, the teacher tried in vain to lift the mood to resemble a fiesta. To at least get us to speak. Too little, too late, I thought. Too little. Too late.

© April 2015, T. K. Jones